The School of Sap

Jonathon Keats believes trees are artists, too, so he lined up 50 evergreens that seemed ready to sigh, sway, and create. Care to buy a sketch?

Feb 13, 2007
Outside Magazine
Trees As Artists

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OUT HERE IN NORTH-CENTRAL GEORGIA, where the rental-car map ends and the Appalachian Trail begins, where the meth epidemic is matched only by the Waffle House epidemic, where every interstate off-ramp leads, eventually, into forested hills or naughty little glens down by rivers out here, art is going to happen.Trees will draw.

Fifty Leyland cypresses the artists formerly known as evergreens stand calmly among 25 acres of their cohorts at the Kinsey Family Farm. While the other trees on this pastoral nursery will be sawed off for Christmas, these special few have been marked for greatness.


The nine-foot cypress trees are shaped like the nibs of fountain pens. Most of the branches swoop up in an arboreal comb-over, but the youngest ones jut straight out, the fresh shoots dividing into wispy sprigs. On one of these sprigs, a black Faber-Castell pencil is attached. The weight of the pencil and the white poly-cotton twine causes it to droop like a limp wrist. In front of the graphite points, just within reach, pads of Strathmore sketch paper rest on plein air easels. As soon as the wind blows, the paper will receive the historic, first-ever drawings made by trees.

At 10 a.m. on an autumn Saturday, the conceptual artist behind this project, 35-year-old Jonathon Keats, is doing what so many conceptual artists do: very little. He wanders among the trees with a ponderous look on his face. And he sweats. Rivulets of moisture appear at the roots of his swept-back, mad-scientist hair, above the collar of his three-piece white linen suit, near his green-and-pink bow tie. As the temperature pushes toward 80 degrees (with 70 percent humidity), his only relief is the ventilation afforded by his pants, which are several inches too short. Oddly, he appears oblivious to the heat.

"Did you know these trees are just three years old?" he asks. " 'My three-year-old could do that' has never been truer!" He lets out a machine-gun laugh that starts at the back of his throat.He is, certainly, a dork's dork. But a charming one. An abridged résumé:

Summa cum laude graduate in philosophy and aesthetics from Amherst College; art critic for San Francisco magazine; columnist for Artweek; recipient of six fine-arts fellowships, even though, as he freely admits, he can't draw or paint; author of worst-selling novels The Pathology of Lies and Lighter Than Vanity. Jonathon lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco's Chinatown, a space that's cluttered with an oscilloscope and glassware and other trash he's picked up over the years for use in future projects. Of his 11 solo exhibits over the past seven years, the most recent took place at the Modernism gallery, in San Francisco, and included artistic statements like selling futures contracts on his brain ($10 for the option to buy a million neurons at his death) and attempting to genetically engineer God in a petri dish (unsuccessful).

These stunts would be obnoxious if Jonathon weren't sincere, quick to laugh at himself, and truly searching for genuine absurdity. Which is why I flew halfway across the country to observe an art project that I could have set up in my own backyard. I'm convinced that when I look at the trees under Jonathon's tutelage those uniform rows of Cupressocyparis leylandii I will gaze into something deeper than his navel.

AS JONATHON TELLS IT, the tree-art project originated while he was on the forested coast of Westport Island, Maine, during a six-week fellowship paid for by the MacNamara Foundation. One day he saw something unusual through his cabin's window: spruce trees blowing in the wind.

"They were sensitive to their surroundings in ways that any artist I've ever known would envy," he says, "but none of the trees were getting residencies."

So he dug up a sapling, potted it in his studio, and performed some early experiments in getting trees to draw.The sapling-pencil trial happened to coincide with Jonathon reading a book called The Last Folk Hero, a look at the contemporary folk-art scene by Andrew Dietz, a 44-year-old Atlanta resident who published it while running his own marketing-strategies firm. The Last Folk Hero chronicles the lives of several prominent folk artists and their dealers, making the argument that what we call folk art naive, often rural art done without the influence of popular culture is disappearing. Even the toothless quack building hubcap pyramids way out in the country has lost his naïveté. Mass media has made folk artists aware of their commercial potential, so now they tailor their folksiness to what buyers seem to want. Every artist is a sellout to some degree. No one is authentic.

Except for trees, Jonathon thought. They were true outsiders, incorruptible in their non-sentience. Why not make them artists?

Jonathon got in touch with Andrew, whom he knew only through his book, and they decided to launch a movement called Agrifolk Art.

Despite Andrew's insistence that Agrifolk is an original artistic wave "on the order of Impressionism," it has obvious similarities to animal art, a movement that, since the mid-1970s, has been anchored at the Museum of Non-Primate Art (, near Chichester, England. There, zoologists and art historians have collected samples of "elephant art" (trunk drawings in dust), "cat art" (paw paintings), "stallion art" (beautiful dung piles), and "bird art" (blobs of "ornithological dejecta").

But no tree art. So there was still territory left to be explored.Jonathon found the Kinsey Family Farm on Google, and Andrew convinced the Kinseys to let 50 of the trees get artsy for a weekend. Andrew ordered $2,000 worth of art supplies, while Jonathon sent out a press release to pump up the theoretical backstory. ("Research Reveals That Visual Artists Perform Photosynthesis," it blared.) Andrew, a nice guy who's considerably slicker than Jonathon, saw some profit potential, so he lined up Atlanta's Soho Myriad Gallery for a mid-October show. Atlanta-based Eyekiss Films signed on to shoot a documentary. And Andrew agreed to pay Jonathon $2,500, fly him to Georgia, and share 20 percent of the gallery sales, which he believed could be considerable. He estimated that the first museum piece might fetch up to $50,000.

Everything was lined up except, of course, the weather. And this became the first obstacle to seeing much of anything.

LATER IN THE MORNING on Saturday, motionless white puffs hang on the woodsy horizon, underscoring the absence of wind. Normally, a light westerly blows across this gradual southwest-facing slope, picking up toward sundown. But high pressure has stalled over Georgia, stifling any breeze.

Nobody seems worried. Jonathon continues quietly hanging ID tags on the trees using combinations of letters to identify each artist. Andrew wearing a button-down shirt, ball cap, and wraparound sunglasses that hide not just his eyes but most of his pillowy, untanned face corners me. Squatting under a pecan tree, he expertly promotes his book, which he's selling at a display on hay bales in the barn. He says it's the touchstone of the entire Agrifolk movement, describing bizarre passages about how the entrance to Jane Fonda's apartment was built to resemble a vagina. I wriggle away to buy a copy.

At lunchtime, Andrew lays out a huge spread in anticipation of many visitors pork barbecue sandwiches, Brunswick stew, slaw, RC Cola, MoonPies but the only person who stops by is his sister, Karen, and she can't stay long enough to linger among the handful of trees that, ever so lightly, have started sketching. Her daughter is competing in a cheerleading competition later today, and she has to make an appearance.

"One time, we lost because our audience participation wasn't loud enough," she says, looking at her watch. "Oh, Gawd. I have to be there! Go, trees!"

As the afternoon wears on, a handful of other visitors will swing by among others, a writer for a regional magazine, an illustrator of Jewish marriage contracts, Andrew's parents, and the manager of the farm. Nobody seems to get it. Only Catherine Fox, the longtime art critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gives the trees more than a passing glance.

Wearing smart denim capris, a cool white button-down, and sensible sneakers, she jaunts through the aisles, with sweaty Jonathon following in dutiful attendance.

"That's quite a suit," she points out. "Did you get that just for this?"

"I have a few," he says. "I like to dress well."

Catherine launches into the tough questions What's your hypothesis? Do you consider this a performance? Aren't you really making the art? Isn't it just a matter of semantics? which Jonathon fields with typically lengthy replies. Catherine jots a few lines in her reporter's notebook and gets ready to leave.

"Are you gonna write about it?" someone asks.

"Oh, yeah, I think it'll be great fun," she says with a comical snarl.

Having spent a solid 15 minutes among the trees, she leaves an hour after arriving. On the way out, she walks through an enormous spider web. One of the moviemakers chuckles and says, "The spider probably recoiled."

AFTER THE DOCUMENTARY guys surreptitiously blow on one of the trees in hopes of getting an action shot, I head out to look at the art. Most of it is so faint that you can hardly see it, a natural imitation of Robert Ryman, that 20th-century minimalist who hung blank canvases. Later, I pull Jonathon aside and, with restraint and delicacy and no sense of desperation, ask, "Why should anyone care about this?"

"I can't tell them," he says. "I hope people are curious and the curiosity can be encouraged. But I can't force it on somebody."

OK, let's be more concrete: Trees are "naive," they might or might not be drawing, why do you care?

"Well, I realize I've made assumptions about ideas that I don't quite understand," he begins, enthusiasm accelerating his speech. "I don't really know what I mean when I say trees are 'non-sentient.' I don't know what I mean when I say 'consciousness.' "

"Consciousness is being self-aware," I say.

"Well, what do you mean by 'self-aware'? Who is the 'self' being aware of the 'self'? You wind up in a vicious regress.

"It was really at this point where the project suddenly mattered to me," Jonathon continues, "when I realized there was a thought experiment there that I didn't know I was setting up. Trees drawing explores ideas of consciousness and how that relates to ideas of intelligence, creativity, and all these terms that make us feel superior, give us some sense of being special because the opposable-thumb thing just isn't enough for us."

Hmmm. If I've understood him correctly, which I'll bet I haven't, the root of what Jonathon is saying is this: Let's stop talking and go look at the trees again.

By four o'clock everyone has left, and by 5:15 Jonathon has placed the last easel and begins harvesting the first completed works. The wind must have picked up at some point, because the drawings are much more interesting than before.

The marks on the page run the gamut of styles, though I have to agree with the farm manager, who says, "I'm gonna go with abstract." Some are smudges, the pencil having tilted sideways a bit and rubbed back and forth in a one-inch track. More rare are the expressive trees, my favorites, which draw wildly all over the page in thin squiggles, sometimes so exuberantly that the line streaks off the paper done! Least common are the dots. On these, the cypress has left a peppering of fine, barely visible pokes, where the sprigs must have lifted off the surface, swung over or up, and then dropped like sewing-machine needles.

I KINDA LIKE IT, and I'm not the only one. A month later, at the gallery show in Atlanta, five of the 30 pieces will sell, in the range of $750 to $1,000 each a tad less than $50,000, granted, but still twice the price of an elephant painting.

Catherine Fox's Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece from October 29 will turn out to be surprisingly charitable. "The project is amusing," she'll write, "and if it shakes our smug certainties even a little, then it is a success at least from my point of view." She'll conclude with the remark that a piece of Agrifolk art might complement the ordinary household fixture that inspired conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: "You could always hang one above your urinal."

And Jonathon, philosophical to the end, will refuse to judge any piece until he's sat with them all, fearing that doing so says less about the art and more about him.

As for me, I keep thinking about the trees. On the farm, intrigued by the first drawings, I ambled through the rows and columns of Leyland cypresses with no goal but to study them. The flat, bluish-green leaves smelled faintly of Vicks VapoRub, and the scaly trunks were a ruddy hue, almost cedarlike with their traces of waxy white. I tried to find a correlation between the art and the artist were the more exuberant drawings done by trees exposed to the fresher breezes on the edge of the farm? but couldn't. The drawings were purely random. Perhaps the trees were individual in some way, though I'm not prepared to claim they're smart.

Nonetheless, there is something really beautiful about the trees and their work. If modern art is the ultimate expression of its creator's take on the human condition, then these artists' message is clear: You guys think too much. Chill out and scribble awhile.

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